Yes, this movie is a period piece. But this movie, adapted from a wonderful play, is at the end of the day a powerful tale of an acutely dysfunctional family. Set during the Christmas season in 12th century England, this story is powerfully scripted and superbly acted by everyone. Peter O’Toole gives his tour de force performance as Henry II, a world-weary monarch intent on maintaining supremacy and establishing his legacy. Katherine Hepburn, in what is the among the finest movie performances I have ever seen, plays his deadly foil (and oh yes, estranged wife) Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine, who is determined to thwart his plans. The issue: which of their surviving children will inherit the throne of England, and marry Alais, the sister of the King of France? The pawns in this game are Alais and the English Princes, Richard the Lionhearted (Anthony Hopkins), John (Nigel Terry of Excalibur fame), and Geoffrey. Then of course, there is the wild card, the teenage French monarch, Philip (Timothy Dalton).
In this movie you have all of the themes of familial dysfunction: the vitriol and wistfulness of an estranged couple, the frustrations of the "model" eldest child, the resentment of the neglected middle child, the eccentricities of the overindulged youngest child, a May-December affair triggered by a mid-life crisis, holiday depression, and it goes on and on. This movie is so adept at exploring these topics that it makes "American Beauty" (a good film in its own right) seem almost sophomoric.
What makes this movie stand out is the writing. There is no other movie this side of "The Godfather" that has contained such enjoyable dialogue and character development. The dialogue in this movie is outstanding ("It’s not the power I feel deprived of, it’s the mention that I miss"; "Give me a little peace/A little? Why so modest? How about eternal peace? Now there’s a thought.")
I doubt there will ever be another movie that will be so skillful in weaving together historical material, political intrigue, and slice-of-life issues into so seamlessly. This is one of my 10 favorite movies. Please rent it, and if you can find it, buy it.